Posted by: keepfishing | March 12, 2008

Progress: a question


Recently I’ve heard a lot of different people, from a lot of different walks of life, with a lot of different beliefs, talk about the idea of human progression as a species. And they’ve all meant different things. So I was curious what all you people think.

I don’t gratuitously ask for comments often, but I’d love it if everyone who reads this could breifly comment and answer the question:

 What does it mean for humanity to progress?  


  1. Evolutionary progress doesn’t exist per se, but is an observation viable only in hindsight. We’re used to the anthropocentric view, where we see evolution as a ladder leading straight to us. In reality, however, much of evolution has been stationary or even downward in complexity, rather than upward or increasing. The vast majority of life (by weight) remains bacterial, and indeed during five-sixths of the history of life there were only single-celled organisms. So evolutionary change isn’t directionally forward-looking, any more than a stream is looking for the sea – it just seeks the path of least resistance.

    That said, what about the specific instance of human change? I presume you mean speciation or species change, so I’ll focus on that. There are two accepted modes of speciation, allopatric and sympatric speciation (I think wikipedia has entries for both, for superficial overviews). Both require some form of geographical or ecological separation of subpopulations of a species, leading to reproductive isolation following divergence over many generations. As this doesn’t appear to be going on, there is little indication that humanity will “progress” to something different. That leaves phyletic change, which is just basic changes within a given species.

    Key concepts: biological species concept, allopatric speciation, sympatric speciation, phyletic change.

  2. Yeah. I do. Except for today. 🙂 You know I love your country too much.. 😛

  3. Let me think about that one. I am not convinced we are progressing.

  4. Dan – thanks, I’m impressed by the thought you put in, it’s a really interesting perspective.

    Christy – that depends on what you mean by progression

  5. Hey!
    Yeah, Al, it depends how you’re defining progression. Technologically, we’ve been advancing as a race ever since we came about.

    Morally, this is far too big a question, but I’ll try and add something. I don’t believe humans can progress morally – I’m of the CS Lewis camp that believe in a ‘moral law’ – a predetermined set of right and wrong. I don’t think human morals will change. At least, the view that there is a right and a wrong with every action.

    Physically, I personally believe in evolution. However, I’m not sure how humans will evolve as a species.

    This is really too big a question to attempt to answer in a blog post, but if anyone wants to comment back, I wouldn’t mind starting a discussion!

  6. Thanks Keepfishing,
    Yes, if you haven’t noticed, I answered from the biologist’s perspective, and in particular the position laid out by Ernst Mayr.

    For the sake of discussion, I’d like to contribute a paper by Mayr originally published in 1974, that might have some bearing: Teleological and teleonomical: A new analysis. Check out the section on “unidirectional evolutionary sequences” on page 4 in particular.

    I hope that helps. Cheers.

  7. What does it mean for humanity to progress?

    It means that the laws which govern the universe (whatever they may be) continue to do so.

  8. I think we often substitute change for progress in our daily lives and in the case of human progress. While progress is change, I think it must require more. If I change my crappy pen to another just as crappy pen (though different brand) pen, there was no progress. However, if I get a better pen the writes easier and has lots of ink, progress happened.

    As a general idea, I would say that progress is when something changes in such a way that the object in question becomes “better” sutited for its intended purpose. So for humans, I guess our progress as far as I can see is monitoring and changing ourselves, whether by biological evolution or conscious choice of morals, etc in order to preserve ourselves in the our best form.

    In the end, I guess I don’t really know.

  9. It means nothing. Saying it means a great deal. Among other things, it means that you are engaging in metaphysical speculation.

    The idea of collective human progress, and especially of inevitable progress, is bound up with the notion of the perfectability of mankind. Both “Progress” and “Perfection”, in this sense, have a specific historicity. They are ideas with stories of their own.

    Before the evangelization of apostate Judaism in the form of early Christianity, Pagan peoples had no notion of history as something linear—that is, with a beginning, middle, and end. For them, the human story was inseparable from the story of the Earth, which ostensably was and always would be, ever renewing with the change and return of seasons and constellations.

    Instead of linear, cyclical. So, since “Progress” is a linear notion, it was necessarily preceeded by the shift (in the West) from cyclicalism to a theology of history that was at first prophetic until it became, when secularized through modernism, a theory of history that was to take many forms—most of them disguising metaphysical cosmology with a veneer of science. (Or, more properly, Scientism.)

    But it’s still metaphysical guesswork. Perhaps a bit like assuming a vast forest from one’s experience as a sprouting pine needle. Theoreticians of history are in love with a magical forest, but in reality they can’t see it for the trees.

  10. Evolution isn’t linear. Granted, it progresses in a linear sense, following the temporal stream, but the changes wrought are not linear.

    Dependent on environmental and social concerns, the development of a species cannot be observed impartially by the species itself because the factors involved are dynamic, and the range of view is dilated by distance of time and lack of hereditary knowledge kept.
    We assume evolution has to be organic, but there are signs we are becoming masters of our destiny. We have become more dependent on technology, to the extent that they become our eyes and ears, and sometimes (no, quite often, us and our cars) ambulatory devices.

    What is the difference between employing a stick and stone to turn vibrant life into digestible meat, and dialing in the phone for delivery pizza? The process just has become more convulted, more complicated.

    As for moral laws, there are none but those that we formulate for our relative realities. Umwelt is a little known German word, but it perfectly describes the individual experience of species, and the minds of individuals within that species. There is no wrong in any action you take, good or evil, for you were always going to make that action. It is only wrong to those who are negatively affected, and right to those who are helped.

    We are just afraid of change, even though we adamantly impound our ability to do so. The idea of changing into something different than what we already are is horrifying to the consensus. Within our finite lifetimes, we are all we know. Perhaps it is a good thing the change is of glacial pace.

  11. progress?

    Technologically = iPhone (yes folks, we have reached the pinnacle)

    Biologically = red Hair, blue eyes and over 6 foot.

  12. Yes, well, this wouldn’t be the first time that Darwinian Theory has led to Darwinism, to scientists who, wearing Biology’s jersey, run clear off the field of play—where the rules of scientific evidence and testability apply—and clear up into the stands of sociology, economics, anthropology, philosophy and theology.

    Biologists regnant, a caveat: While in the End Zone, it’s best not to do the dans macabre of Nietschean narcissism.

  13. What does it mean for humanity to progress? Depends on what you mean by progress. But I believe that from a material standpoint we are already at the top.

    However, we’ve got a ways to go in regard to our thinking. Sure, we’ve got the world by the tail when it comes to technology. In fact, we’re looking for ways to have our technology do our thinking for us. But at what cost?

    How many people think truly original thoughts? Our cognition often seems to be an assortment of already-thought thoughts collected from the miasma of consciousness around us. We keep refining this process with all the brilliance of our intellectual brains. Someone once said, “We know more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.”

    We lack integration in our thinking. We can think one thing, feel another and do something completely inconsistent with what we think or feel.

    I think progression comes from being truly awake. Is what I am thinking truly my own? If so, how is it my own? Are my actions consistent with what I think? Are my feelings consistent with what I do? Am I truly the one who makes choices or am I compelled toward a course of action based on what people around me are telling me I should be doing or thinking? Am I the product of my environment or am I someone who acknowledges my environment and then breaks through the perceived conceptions towards a kind of knowing that has not existed before?

    I think humanity progresses when human beings become truly free and truly conscious, when what they think and say and feel and do are no longer based on preconceived attitudes but are the result of truly original thought.

  14. Is it progress if a cannibal uses a knife and fork?

  15. A cannibal and a knife and fork…

    I would say that if using a knife and fork helps the purpose (I assume eating) easier and better, then yes it is progress. I don’t think progress has to be good in any conventional sense. In my perception of things, everything is what it is. Progress is progress, progress is not good or happiness. Those things may be increased by progress, but they are not synonyms.

  16. Humanity progresses, but in a handbasket.

  17. I’m with Kant and my homeboy Kierkegaard. The only “real” progress is beyond the ken of Science. It is the spiritual progress, if any, of the individual.

  18. I think the only real progress is measured by the maximum level of knowledge and understanding that a human possesses of the world. Who knows whether or not society or the world progresses, we are all just along for evolution’s wild ride. However, we certainly have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the world. You can’t say we are any better off now than we were 100, 1000, or 10,000 years ago, but you can say the most knowledgeable person today understands the world more truly than those before.

  19. I think humans will progress all the way back to being aliens.

  20. (look at all your readers coming out of the woodwork!)

    I don’t know much about the biological side of “progress,” and I think technological progress is self evident. From lightbulb to iPhone – things are moving up.

    But in a moral/societal sense, I think that progress (the overall improvement of quality of life) only occurs on a large level when personal spiritual overhall occurs – if people don’t experience deep individual change, large scale progress can’t occur. More people have been killed in the last century than ever before (maybe even the sum total of history previous to that point). Which indicates to me that moral progress is not a natural process, but something that needs to be kick-started. And I think that’s got to happen on a widespread personal level…

  21. Something Beth has said strikes me a as really promising. She said that progress, in a moral/societal sense = “the overall improvement of quality of life”. What kinds of qualitative improvements? Improvements in the quality of what?

  22. Wow, you do have quite a reading… 21 comments.. amazing.. I can’t remember the last time I had that.. 🙂 Well done sir.

    Ahhhh so you asked to clarify.. but since it is yoru post.. I might need that from you before I answer and clarify my response. What do you mean by progress.. so I can answer properly.. 😉

  23. Christy, your answer is your own. It was deliberately ambiguous, precisely because everyone’s idea of progress is different. If I defined it, i wouldn’t get such a breadth of answers.

    And in response to some above… in some places ‘Wellbeing’ is now a corporate term – companies are intent on improving our wellbeing by selling us stuff that’ll help. Is this really the way? Or how else can life really be improved?

  24. […] last week’s question, I’ve heard this word banded about in several different contexts and with several different […]

  25. […] month or so back, I asked the question, What is Progress?, and received an unprecedented response from all over the place. Answers ranged from the […]

  26. […] with no firm conclusions. So, in the nature of some recent posts, where I’ve asked some questions and got wonderfully wide and varied responses, I want to […]

  27. […] given to the improvement human wellbeing and progress. Given that human progress is rather hard to define, I’ll largely ignore that and focus on human wellbeing and […]

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